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Face it — cell phones distract drivers

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FRESNO, Calif. — On my way to work Friday I saw a woman putting on makeup while driving south on Highway 41. My first thought was that if they are going to ban the use of cellular phones while driving, they surely ought to ban the application of makeup while driving.

So I observed her for a few moments to gather material for a column on the injustice of picking on cell phone users. Then the obvious struck me. This woman was driving safely, observing the speed limit and checking surrounding traffic by looking over her shoulder and using her mirrors. She also finished her makeup chore rather quickly.

She may have been putting on makeup, but she wasn't a distracted driver. That's usually not the case with drivers using cell phones.

No matter what you hear from the cellular industry, it's substantially different using a cell phone while driving than performing other chores in a car. The conversation often is intense and calls sometimes break up as you go through cell coverage areas, meaning you have to concentrate more on the call than on the traffic.

I sometimes use a cell phone in the car, and I'm a much better driver when I'm not on the phone, even with my rationalization about being able to do both chores at once. When the phone is on my left ear, for example, I don't do a very good job of changing into the left lane because it's more difficult looking over my shoulder. Dialing takes a lot of concentration. The caller-ID function complicates this as I decide whether to take a call or let it go to voice mail.

I have friends who have multiple phones with multiple decisions to make while driving. How safe can that be, especially during night driving?

You don't have to make so many decisions when applying makeup while driving. Not that I know anything about this subject but a little lipstick here, some foundation and concealer there and a bit of mascara on those eyelashes.

That can't be as distracting as deciding whether to take the call when the number of the woman you're about to break up with pops up on your cell phone.

This issue has re-entered the news because New York has become the first state to pass a law requiring drivers to use hands-free cellular equipment. You won't be able to hold a cell phone to your ear beginning in December, but you'll still be able to use a cell phone if you have a headset or other hands-free technology. Other states are looking at similar laws, and the public pressure on legislators to do something is increasing at almost the same pace as cell phone usage.

Critics of the legislation have pulled out the tired old argument that there are other distractions in cars that also ought to be banned if you're going to restrict cell phone use: eating, popping a CD in the disc player, lighting a cigarette, applying makeup and screaming kids.

These may be distractions, but they usually are only temporary. Well, maybe all but the screaming kids. But even our mothers knew it was safer to pull over before smacking us. Using the cell phone is prolonged distraction that multiplies the chances of getting in an accident.

This is what New York Gov. George Pataki said upon signing his state's cell phone bill: "By requiring drivers to put down their cell phones and pay attention to the road, this new law will help make our roads safer and save lives. Too many families have suffered the tragedy of seeing a loved one injured — sometimes fatally — in an accident caused by someone who was driving and was using a cell phone."

The New York law allows motorists to make emergency 911 calls while driving.

Cell phone users argue that they are being picked on by people trying to turn back the technology clock.

It's probably time for all sides in this debate to give a bit so that we aren't legislating a problem that could be solved with common sense and a bit of courtesy.

In the meantime, I'm going to hang up and drive.

Jim Boren of the Fresno Bee in California may be contacted at www.fresnobee.com.